Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Scope-severity paradox: Inflicting greater harm judged to be less harmful, study finds

Date:
September 9, 2010
Source:
SAGE Publications
Summary:
Joseph Stalin once claimed that a single death was a tragedy, but a million deaths was a statistic. New research validates this sentiment, confirming large-scale tragedies don't connect with people emotionally in the same way smaller tragedies do.

Joseph Stalin once claimed that a single death was a tragedy, but a million deaths was a statistic. New research from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University validates this sentiment, confirming large-scale tragedies don't connect with people emotionally in the same way smaller tragedies do.

The new study, entitled "The Scope-Severity Paradox: Why doing more harm is judged to be less harmful," has been published in the current issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science (published by SAGE) and was conducted by Loran Nordgren of the Kellogg School of Management and Mary-Hunter Morris of Harvard Law School. The researchers found that a "scope-severity paradox" exists in which judgment of harm tends to be based on emotional reactions, and thus people have a stronger emotional response to singular identifiable victims rather than to an entire crowd of sufferers.

"We see this time and again on the news, where a missing person is featured as a leading story for months because there is emotional interest wrapped up in that single individual," said Nordgren, assistant professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School. "But, if you think of current stories such as the Chilean miners or the people affected by the BP oil spill, we find that it's harder to relate to those victims unless you get to know their personal stories. The bottom line is that it's difficult for people to connect when there are many faceless victims."

To test their theory, the researchers conducted a series of three experiments. In the first study, Nordgren and Morris asked participants to read a story about a financial advisor who defrauded his clients. Half the time, the story described how only two or three people were harmed and the other half of the time, dozens of people were harmed. After reading the story, participants were asked to evaluate the severity of the crime and to recommend a punishment for the perpetrator, as well as to describe one of the participants in the case. As predicted, participants in the small-scope condition judged the fraud case more harshly and recommended a longer jail sentence for the perpetrator.

Also, participants could describe an additional three traits in the small-scope condition over the large-scope condition. The researchers noted that this "victim identifiability effect" allows people to form more vivid mental representations of a smaller number of victims.

The second experiment tested whether the researchers could correct this bias by manipulating the identifiability of the victims. The participants read a story about a food processing company that sold tainted food that made people sick. One group was given a basic description of the victims whereas a second group received a photo of one of the victims along with her name and occupation. As in the first experiment, stronger identifiability with the victim led participants to perceive the crime more severely and to recommend greater punishment for the company.

To take this experiment one step further, the second experiment also explored whether participants would act more ethically if they identified more strongly with the victims in the food tainting story. They were asked to imagine that they worked for the company, and if they would blow the whistle on their employer. Consistent with previous results, the participants were less inclined to blow the whistle when more victims were involved, suggesting that making the victim more vivid can partially overcome the scope-severity paradox.

Finally, a third experiment examined the scope-severity paradox in real jury verdicts. The researchers looked at the outcomes of 133 U.S. court cases between 2000 and 2009 in which someone had been negligently exposed to either asbestos, lead paint or toxic mold. They found that total damages decreased as the number of people affected increased.

"In all three studies, we found that increasing the number of people victimized by a crime actually decreases the perceived severity of that crime and leads people to recommend less punishment for crimes that victimize more people," said Nordgren.

According to Nordgren, the paradox is problematic especially in situations involving mass crimes like genocide in which harm is extreme and widely dispersed among a large population of people. But, he noted that vivid, personalized accounts of individual victims, such as the diary of Anne Frank, can help people grasp the severity of mass crimes.

"To combat this paradox, individuating victims partially helps the problem," he said. "When there is specific information about one or two victims out of a larger group, there is more sympathy than when there isn't specific information about anyone."


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by SAGE Publications. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. L. F. Nordgren, M.-H. Morris McDonnell. The Scope-Severity Paradox: Why Doing More Harm Is Judged to Be Less Harmful. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2010; DOI: 10.1177/1948550610382308

Cite This Page:

SAGE Publications. "Scope-severity paradox: Inflicting greater harm judged to be less harmful, study finds." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 9 September 2010. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/09/100909155653.htm>.
SAGE Publications. (2010, September 9). Scope-severity paradox: Inflicting greater harm judged to be less harmful, study finds. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 1, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/09/100909155653.htm
SAGE Publications. "Scope-severity paradox: Inflicting greater harm judged to be less harmful, study finds." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/09/100909155653.htm (accessed September 1, 2014).

Share This




More Science & Society News

Monday, September 1, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Thailand Totters Towards Waste Crisis

Thailand Totters Towards Waste Crisis

AFP (Sep. 1, 2014) Fears are mounting in Bangkok that poor planning and lax law enforcement are tipping Thailand towards a waste crisis. Duration: 01:21 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
California Passes 'yes-Means-Yes' Campus Sexual Assault Bill

California Passes 'yes-Means-Yes' Campus Sexual Assault Bill

Reuters - US Online Video (Aug. 30, 2014) California lawmakers pass a bill requiring universities to adopt "affirmative consent" language in their definitions of consensual sex, part of a nationwide drive to curb sexual assault on campuses. Linda So reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
As Drought Continues LA "water Police" Fight Waste

As Drought Continues LA "water Police" Fight Waste

AFP (Aug. 29, 2014) In the midst of a historic drought, Los Angeles is increasing efforts to go after people who waste water. Five water conservation "cops" drive around the city every day educating homeowners about the drought. Duration: 02:17 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Who Could Be Burnt by WHO's E-Cigs Move?

Who Could Be Burnt by WHO's E-Cigs Move?

Reuters - Business Video Online (Aug. 28, 2014) The World Health Organisation has called for the regulation of electronic cigarettes as both tobacco and medical products. Ciara Lee looks at the impact of the move on the tobacco industry. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins